Jan 14 2007

The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely

ProofSo if an explanation isn’t proven, how do you decide how likely it is to be correct?

There are two big arguments that believers in the supernatural make again and again. One is the “Explain that!” argument — the world is full of things for which there is currently no explanation, and therefore it’s reasonable to believe that those things might have supernatural causes. The other is the “You can’t prove anything!” argument — naturalists can’t definitively disprove the supernatural, and therefore it’s just as reasonable to believe in it as it to disbelieve.

UnexplainedIn the most literal sense, these arguments would seem to be unanswerable. Yes, it’s certainly true that the existence of supernatural phenomena has not been disproven – it’s notoriously difficult, even impossible, to prove conclusively that something doesn’t exist. And yes, of course the world is full of phenomenon for which we currently don’t have naturalistic explanations.

So in the narrowest sense, these arguments are true.

But they’re terrible arguments.

I want to talk about why.


Let’s look at the history of the world. Specifically, let’s look at the history of knowledge in the world.

ApolloWhen you look at the history of the world, you see thousands — tens of thousands, arguably hundreds of thousands or more — of phenomena for which a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural one. Why the sun rises and sets; what thunder and lightning are; how and why illness happens and spreads; why people look like their parents; how people got to be here in the first place
 all these things, and thousands more, were once explained by gods or spirits or mystical energies. And now all of them have natural, physical explanations.

Natural explanations, I should point out, with mountains of solid, carefully collected, replicable evidence to support them.

Now, how many times in the history of the world has a natural explanation of a phenomenon been supplanted by a supernatural one?

ZeroAs far as I am aware, exactly zero.

OfpandasandpeopleOf course, people are coming up with new supernatural explanations of naturally-explained phenomena all the time. Intelligent design is the most obvious example. You can pick up any New Age magazine to find more.

But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? Carefully gathered, patiently tested, rigorously reviewed evidence? Internally consistent evidence? Large amounts of it, from many different sources?

Again, as far as I’m aware — none.

Which brings me to my point: the question of likelihood.

Earth_axisGiven this pattern — thousands upon thousands upon thousands of natural explanations accurately supplanting supernatural ones, zero supernatural explanations accurately supplanting natural ones — doesn’t it seem that any given unexplained phenomenon is far more likely to have a natural explanation than a supernatural one?

Far, far more likely?

Like, several orders of magnitude more likely?

ConsciousnessSo when you’re looking at a phenomenon — consciousness, for instance, my current favorite example — that doesn’t currently have a good naturalistic explanation, you can of course argue “Explain that!” or “That doesn’t prove anything.” You can argue that scientists don’t really know what consciousness is, and therefore it could be some sort of metaphysical energy, and science can’t conclusively prove that it isn’t.

But I think it makes a lot more sense to look at the pattern — the overwhelming pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones by the thousands and more — and consider which kind of explanation is really more likely.


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  1. 1
    Donna Gore

    I once met a man at work who believed that the human race was put here on earth by a superior race of aliens from elsewhere in the universe. At first I thought he was crazy. But then I started thinking about it. Which is more likely – a supernatural god, or intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? Intelligent life could have EVOLVED on another planet (in other words, come into existence through NATURAL means). Gods are by definition supernatural. Given a choice I will always take the natural explanation over the supernatural one.
    So I decided, his views are actually more likely to be true than what most other people believe. And then after that, I was okay with him.
    I love to use this argument with Christians when they start making fun of Scientology. Not that I’m a defender of Scientology – I think they’re a bunch of kooks. But how are the stories in the bible any better or any more plausible ??

  2. 2

    You had me at “they’re terrible arguments”, but as I understand it
    But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? Carefully gathered, patiently tested, rigorously reviewed evidence? Internally consistent evidence? Large amounts of it, from many different sources?
    isn’t going to fly with the ID crowd — they’re suspicious of the scientific method to begin with, so asking them to back up their claims by it gets you back to square zero.
    As for the likelihood argument, there are many things in our experience that should, by their sheer frequency, lay claim to truth. Newtonian physics comes to mind, as does the superiority of white men. Our experience doesn’t mean jack.

  3. 3

    It strikes me as the height of hubris to argue that because one hasn’t yet been able to find or conceive of an explanation for something based on one’s knowledge of the natural world (which is always limited, even for the brightest and most diligent scholar), that THEREFORE the explanation MUST be supernatural! Sadly, hubris is cheap and widely available, whereas to develop a broad and deep knowledge base and strong critical thinking skills is expensive, and the humility to admit one’s own limitations is a much rarer commodity.
    To describe the proponents of “Intelligent Design” as trying to provide a supernatural explanation of… what is it anyway? Biodiversity? Life (of any sort) itself?… is to give them too much credit. They affect the trappings of scientific argument and debate, but it is abundantly clear that they seek not an explanation of anything, but rather justification for their own belief that their chosen deity is responsible for… again, whatever it is they’re claiming explanation for. They may pretend otherwise, but none but the most stupid are fooled into thinking they mean any “intelligence” other than that same Yahweh who gave inscribed tablets to Moses.
    Furthermore, the explanatory power of their chosen “explanation” is NIL. There is nothing in this story that provides any indication of the mechanisms whereby life or diverse species came into being, or how they coexist — mechanisms that would lend themselves to any sort of testable predictions (hypotheses) that would increase our understanding of anything else.

  4. 4

    Seriously, the “Like, several orders of magnitude more likely?” had me rolling in the aisles.
    jrb – scientific likelihood and the frequency of bullshit are two different things. The former has ways to test and discard the latter.

  5. 5
    Bill Brent

    How would these ID folks rather get treated for illness: by a certified medical practitioner, or by praying to aliens?
    (Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must prepare my nightly paperclip offering to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.)

  6. 6

    What is interesting to me is that the line dividing supernatural from natural keeps moving. “Supernatural” may signify that which science is just beginning to explain. For example in Reinventing Medicine, Larry Dossey cites a number of scientific studies showing that prayer influences the physical condition of not just humans but also mice and even bacteria. Yet most traditional scientists refuse even to discuss this phenomenon, a classic example of how disbelief distances one from science just as surely as belief does.

  7. 7
    Greta Christina

    The thing is, Jill, it’s simply not the case that traditional scientists “refuse to even discuss this phenomenon.” There’s an entire scientific organization — CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) — devoted to careful scientific studies of phenomena like distance healing and the efficacy of prayer. (You can find them online at http://www.csicop.org/ )
    And what they’ve found, 100% of the time, is that the claims don’t hold up. When the studies are done carefully — following good scientific protocols that screen out the placebo effect, standard statistical fluctuations, conscious or unconscious interference from the experimenters, flat-out fraud, the spontaneous remissions that sometimes happen even without any intervention, etc. etc. etc. — claims about faith healing consistently fall apart.
    In fact, a recent study — a careful, peer-reviewed, placebo-controlled, etc. study — showed that not only did prayer have exactly zero effect on people being prayed for who didn’t know about it… but that people being prayed for who *did* know about it actually did *worse*, not better, than the control groups (people being prayed for who didn’t know, and people not being prayed for at all).
    Now, it’s certainly true that some ideas that were one considered woo-woo by the scientific community are now generally accepted. The effectiveness of meditation on stress is a great example. But that’s *not* a case of a natural explanation being replaced by a supernatural one. It’s an acknowledgment that our mental and emotional states have an effect on our physical states — or rather, that our mental and emotional states ARE physical states, integrated closely with the rest of our physical functions. The basic line between the natural and the supernatural is still solidly in place.
    Are we expanding our understanding of the physical universe by leaps and bounds, and finding astonishing things that surpass all our common-sense beliefs? Yes. Are we finding physical phenomena with metaphysical explanations? No. Lots of cutting-edge science is freaky and weird (lots of not-so cutting edge science is freaky and weird) — but it’s still physical cause and effect.
    Oh, BTW: According to CSI, Larry Dossey bases his claims of the efficacy of prayer on studies that are, at best, statistically insignificant (and at worst just flat-out sloppy). And he bases them in part on the Columbia prayer study — which has since been revealed to be not only profoundly flawed, but actually fraudulent. (For more detailed info, you can go to http://www.csicop.org/ and search for Larry Dossey.)

  8. 8
    Jill Nagle

    Thanks, Greta, I will check out the cross-references.

  9. 9
    Laura D

    There is an interesting diary on Daily Kos about “Evolution Sunday” where Sunday school classes celebrate Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. This is a response by many churches to the Creationists and “Intelligent Design” folk, and to show that it is possible to believe in God and Science at the same time.
    here’s the the link

  10. 10
    Layne Winklebleck

    Hi again Greta.
    Yes, I miss the good ol’ days of Spectator, including our lunches and fun collaboration on all your great reviews. And what a treat now to discover that you are blogging on the juicy metaphysical stuff that most interests me these days. I may have a comment or two more, but obviously I should wait, as you say, until you finish your story and I will also check out some of your previous writing on the subject first.

  11. 11

    Humor me. Which biblical claims have been replaced by scientific ones?

  12. 12
    Greta Christina

    And I say yet again: I have nothing more to say to someone who believes the murder of children and other Biblical atrocities are morally defensible. I find your ideas repugnant on the face of it, and I have no wish to engage in further conversation with you. Thank you for sharing.
    (Quick context explanation to those who weren’t following the other conversation to which this is a reply: No, I’m not talking about abortion. Here’s a link that puts this comment into context:
    If anyone else feels like pointing out the many obvious places where Biblical claims have been replaced by scientific ones, please feel free to do so. I am done talking to this person.)

  13. 13

    Theres one simple explaination to explain your confusion Greta.
    Use ‘reasoning’.
    Nothing can exists on its own without someone create it except God.

  14. 14

    solomon, why does God get an exception from that rule? If exceptions exist, why can’t something else qualify for one?
    For more discussion of the issue, see “First cause argument” at the Iron Chariots wiki.

  15. 15

    Thats what so special about God.God is comparable to nothing.
    Hope this will bring some light to you Greta.Have a good day.

  16. 16
    Greta Christina

    That’s not an answer, solomon. Your reasoning is entirely circular. You’re basically saying, “God is different because God is different.”
    Do you have any good, solid evidence that God exists, and that the normal rules of cause and effect don’t apply to him? Do you have any good, rigorous arguments for why God must logically exist?
    If not… then, no, you have not brought any light. Or rather: You have shed a small amount of light on how defenses of God work in many theists’ minds… which is a big part of why atheists are atheists.

  17. 17

    One thing that always bothers me about theists is their conceited retreat to ‘I just hope it brings you some light’. Like ‘I will pray for you’ and ‘once you open your heart, you will see it’, it is a horribly condescending way of avoiding a reasonable discussion. And a fallacy, too.
    Sure, if I open my heart to it, many ridiculous beliefs may suddenly become very believable.

  18. 18

    The obvious emotional junk, from every side, contained in most of these comments is actually physically sickening. Even for you Greta; you write your posts with such great levity and then seem to quickly abandon it. I enjoy reading your blogs but I quickly lose interest once I begin reading the comments.
    However, let me toss out a few responses and see if it goes anywhere, even though I don’t have the time to keep up.
    God is incomparable not because He simply is incomparable but because He is not reliant upon Natural reality and the laws thereof like all other existence as we understand it and so is incomparable with anything else in reality.
    Here’s a reply I have made for another post. Please forgive the inconsistencies with this conversation.

    Regarding the argument for the supernatural, I would like to expound as such. First, the term “super-natural” means “above nature”; it does not mean some other form of natural. Spiritually, this does not necessarily suggest that it is separate as some sects of faith suggest. In Christianity, the Natural and Supernatural are intimately intertwined to the point that the Natural cannot survive without the Supernatural but the Supernatural is self-sufficient.
    Second, if you define Nature as everything that you can perceive, physical or imaginary, then you may be mislabeling the Supernatural as Natural. Also, if everything you can experience is Natural, then all your sensing abilities are for the Natural and you are left with no ability to sense the Supernatural. Therefore, how could you experience the Supernatural? How would you ever be able to receive the proof that you demand? In other words: If all your sensing organs are designed to sense only the Natural, then how could someone sense the Supernatural, much less come to know it? Then, wouldn’t the Supernatural be forced to interact in Natural ways? Perhaps, some of what you attribute as Natural is, in fact, Supernatural.
    In regards to needing something more to be at peace with reality: God offers peace within situations that do not naturally have peace. God wholly satisfies the unanswered questions. Is it foolish to believe in a god that grants these things? Why would we have such profound feelings if there were not something to satiate them? Why is it so wrong if such a belief supplies these things?

    Also, I have had many conversations with atheists, agnostics and the like and none have supplied a sufficient explanation of how morality could be established Naturalistically. Especially in light of the fallacy of popularity (which you have used scientifically to argue absurdity).

  19. 19
    Ray Ingles

    Curiosity –

    “the term ‘super-natural’ means ‘above nature’”

    Not in practice. In practice, it always means ‘something unknowable’, ‘something hunmans will never comprehend’.

    Think about the difference between the notion of the ‘powerful alien’ (a staple of science fiction) and the notion of a ‘god’ in a religion. What’s the essential difference between them? In the stories, they both do amazing, astonishing things. But a powerful alien is (ultimately, eventually) comprehensible – often in the story humans are able to figure out some way of duplicating its powers, or interfering with them, etc. Gods, though, are beyond what humans can do, and there’s no point in trying to figure out why or how they do what they do.

    People always resort to supernatural explanations when they run out of ideas. Neil Degrasse Tyson makes the point really well.

    Also, I have had many conversations with atheists, agnostics and the like and none have supplied a sufficient explanation of how morality could be established Naturalistically.

    Let me take a shot.

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